Trees and earth and stone all smell sweeter than the sea.
For 94 days, I have been on patrol in the Southern Ocean with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as part of the most-recent whale defence campaign. As we approach 100 nautical miles downwind from the lush coastline of New Zealand’s South Island, that sweet fragrance hits us through an open window on the bridge.
“Can you smell that?” the second officer asks. We all rush over, sticking our heads out like excited dogs bursting from the leash to feel the breeze through a car window. Being at sea for so long enhances the gratitude one feels for the things us land-dwelling creatures often take for granted—stable earth, space to move around, soil, trees, bounteous fruits at our fingertips.
The Southern Ocean and the frozen world of Antarctica have their own wild beauty of course. Amongst the icebergs, when the weather is good, the sky is clear, curious penguins, whales and seals travel by; it really is an awe-inspiring place. It is unfathomable that humans are allowed to exploit Antarctica, let alone exploit the protected, threatened and endangered whales who migrate here for their version of a summer holiday.
Operation Relentless is Sea Shepherd’s 10th campaign disrupting Japan’s illegal whaling activities in an internationally recognised whale sanctuary. Each year Sea Shepherd navigates through the furious latitudes of the Southern Ocean, where a continuous flow of low-pressure systems scream eastward, and heads to the ice to find Japan’s whaling fleet. Sea Shepherd is a direct action organisation—putting their ships where they need to be in order to protect the giant Buddhas of the sea, the Great Whales.
This year Sea Shepherd found the whaling fleet a record four times over the three months of the whaling season. The whaling fleet consists of three harpoon vessels, a security vessel and a giant floating abattoir, the Nisshin Maru. Sea Shepherd’s goal each year is to sit on the slipway of the Nisshin Maru in a sort of High Seas sit-in. With the factory ship’s slipway blocked, the harpoon vessels can’t offload their kills, and therefore can’t hunt.
This year the harpoon vessels launched several aggressive, prolonged and unprovoked attacks on Sea Shepherd, dragging hundreds of metres of steel cable in front of our ships. This forced us to continuously circle around to avoid entangling the cable in our rudder and propeller. This strategy effectively pushed us off the Nisshin Maru’s slipway allowing this destructive industrial blight on the landscape to evade us.
The first skirmish early on in the season lasted for 10 exhausting hours. After spending the entire night on the bridge, I went to rest for a couple of hours before starting my afternoon watch. When I awoke Antarctica flaunted its glorious beauty. We drifted as dozens of whales fed and danced in the deep blue water. Families of minke whales and humpbacks with their young in tow made a more gentle circuit around us, soothing our nerves after a rough night. In the evening the sun hung low in the sky smearing it shades of red and orange. This is how it always should be for Antarctica’s wild souls.